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What the U.S. can and must do to reconnect Gaza

As we speak …

Imagine for a moment: you’re running through rubble with gunfire and explosions going off all around you. As you huddle with your neighbors and think about how to reach safety, you realize you can’t communicate with anyone. Your family members are injured or trapped, but you can’t call an ambulance. You are completely cut off, living in fear and darkness. Now imagine this goes on for over 100 days. 

This is precisely the situation for people in Gaza. If you turned on your phone in Gaza today – that is, if you could find a power source – it would be relatively useless. Gazans are suffering under the ninth, and currently the longest, complete telecommunications and internet shutdown since Israel’s military campaign began. This latest shutdown has lasted seven days, leaving millions in the dark and blocking humanitarian assistance and coordination at a time when access to information can be the difference between life and death. 

The situation is only deteriorating. Israeli authorities are blocking telecommunications repair equipment and phones for humanitarian service workers from entering Gaza. Palestinian telecommunications staff working to restore connectivity have been killed by Israeli strikes. If no one can make repairs, shutdowns will last longer and make saving lives even more difficult.

What – or who – is causing the shutdowns?

Evidence indicates that the outages across Gaza have resulted from a combination of direct attacks on civilian telecommunications infrastructure (the destruction of cell towers, fiber optic cables, and ISP offices) and restrictions on access to power (mainly, blockading fuel required to run generators). This destruction and lack of fuel has largely disconnected Gaza. 

As we note above, repair workers haven’t been spared. On January 13, Israeli airstrikes killed two workers from Palestinian mobile operator Jawwal, Nader Abu Hajjaj and Bahaa Al-Rayes,  while they were traveling to repair switchboards in Khan Younis. This is the second time telecom repair workers have been killed by Israeli strikes, even after notifying the authorities about their repair plans. As Paltel shared with Access Now, the lack of safe passage and a guarantee that staff will be safe is making repairing damaged infrastructure impossible. 

Meanwhile, we’ve learned that the Israeli government is stopping UN agencies from entering Gaza and bringing in critical telecommunications equipment. 

Finally, we’ve documented Israel’s deliberate technical disruptions to telecommunications services. This is not mere speculation: on October 23, the Israeli Ministry of Communications issued a press release acknowledging plans for “shutting down of cellular communications and internet services to Gaza” ahead of military operations. The Israeli government has made its intentions abundantly clear. 

The deadly impact of telecoms and internet shutdowns in Gaza

The impact of the shutdowns is being felt most intensely on the ground. People seeking shelter from bombings and violence can’t communicate with their loved ones, or the humanitarian service workers trying to help them. At the same time, those providing emergency and humanitarian assistance can’t  get the up-to-date information they need to save lives. And when Israeli authorities use the internet to issue warnings or tell people where to seek shelter, millions who are impacted can’t even get online to get that information. 

But the impact is also felt globally. As foreign reporters are barred from entering Gaza unless they accompany the IDF, and scores of Palestinian journalists are killed, citizens and policymakers around the world receive less and less information about what’s happening. 

During U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent trip to the region, he emphasized the importance of facilitating humanitarian assistance for northern Gaza to support the return of displaced Palestinians to the area. But continued telecoms disruptions and restrictions on technology would make this work extremely difficult. As a UN official helping lead humanitarian coordination efforts said earlier this month: 

“The humanitarian community has been left with the impossible mission of supporting more than two million people, even as its own staff are being killed and displaced, as communication blackouts continue, as roads are damaged and convoys are shot at, and as commercial supplies vital to survival are almost non-existent.”

What the U.S. government can and should do to reconnect Gaza

Since the first near-complete internet disruption on October 9, Access Now’s U.S. team has engaged with the U.S. government on the shutdowns in Gaza, sending a clear message: ensuring access to telecommunications services should be a top U.S. government priority. 

While coordinated international action is desirable and has the potential to create change, the reality is that the U.S. is uniquely positioned and wields authority with Israel. 

The U.S. government is broadly committed to defending and protecting international human rights and the Biden administration has claimed that human rights are at the center of its foreign policy. It is imperative the administration commits to action that demonstrates these claims. In addition, the U.S. has a unique relationship with Israel. Israel is arguably the closest U.S. ally in the Middle East; it receives $3.8 billion in annual foreign military funding from the U.S. and during the course of this war, Congress has considered an additional $14.5 billion in military aid. Any government providing that level of aid should be concerned about the human rights violations, alleged war crimes, or crimes against humanity it might be enabling. 

After the first total communications blackout ended, the U.S. took credit for getting Gaza back online. U.S. officials reportedly continue to pressure the Israeli government over shutdowns. Yet Gazans remain in the dark amid chaos. So we continue to ask the U.S. government to: 

  • Call for a complete digital and physical ceasefire to end the ongoing bloodshed; 
  • Tell the Israeli government to refrain from any further proactive shutdowns, never target critical infrastructure such as telecommunications, and to allow the safe passage of telecom staff and engineers to do necessary repair work; 
  • Ensure the full provision of fuel or other energy supply to operate generators keeping telecoms equipment running; 
  • Urge Israel to allow UN agencies and other humanitarian actors access to all of Gaza and loosen restrictions on equipment they can bring in order to aid humanitarian actors and Palestinian ISPs; and
  • Include in any humanitarian aid package proper funding for telecommunications infrastructure and repairs. 

Moving forward, there is still much more that needs to be done, and Access Now has also sent U.S. policymakers longer-term recommendations. These include supporting the establishment of an independent, reliable, and modern telecommunications infrastructure in the occupied Palestinian territories and promoting the deployment of 4G technology. For now, our focus remains on reconnecting Gazans so they can get the humanitarian assistance they desperately need. 

You can keep updated on our work related to Israel’s digital occupation of Gaza here